March 28th, 2013


Book Review: Nightwood, by Djuna Barnes

A wild mad nightmarish and frantic dark indescribable between the wars lesbian acid trip of a free verse poem disguised as a novel.


Faber and Faber, 1936, 208 pages

Nightwood, Djuna Barnes' strange and sinuous tour de force, "belongs to that small class of books that somehow reflect a time or an epoch" (TLS). That time is the period between the two World Wars, and Barnes' novel unfolds in the decadent shadows of Europe's great cities, Paris, Berlin, and Vienna—a world in which the boundaries of class, religion, and sexuality are bold but surprisingly porous. The outsized characters who inhabit this world are some of the most memorable in all of fiction—there is Guido Volkbein, the Wandering Jew and son of a self-proclaimed baron; Robin Vote, the American expatriate who marries him and then engages in a series of affairs, first with Nora Flood and then with Jenny Petherbridge, driving all of her lovers to distraction with her passion for wandering alone in the night; and there is Dr. Matthew-Mighty-Grain-of-Salt-Dante-O'Connor, a transvestite and ostensible gynecologist, whose digressive speeches brim with fury, keen insights, and surprising allusions. Barnes' depiction of these characters and their relationships (Nora says, "A man is another person—a woman is yourself, caught as you turn in panic; on her mouth you kiss your own") has made the novel a landmark of feminist and lesbian literature. Most striking of all is Barnes' unparalleled stylistic innovation, which led T. S. Eliot to proclaim the book "so good a novel that only sensibilities trained on poetry can wholly appreciate it." Now with a new preface by Jeanette Winterson, Nightwood still crackles with the same electric charge it had on its first publication in 1936.

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Verdict: Nightwood is amazingly written, extremely stylized, and captures a very particular time and place with a vivid portrayal of its small cast of sad, wrecked characters. But I'm not surprised that Djuna Barnes isn't well known today. This book has to be read and reread to apprehend everything, and reading it once was enough of a trial for me. It's the sort of book probably found in graduate courses in queer studies or early feminist literature, and not much anywhere else. But if you like difficult books that stretch the limits of language (James Joyce, Cormac McCarthy, that sort of writing), then you should probably try the experience of Nightwood.

I read Nightwood for the books1001 challenge.

My complete list of book reviews.